Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The world according to the Coen Brothers

So why the fascination for the Coen Brothers?

Disclaimer: I've only concentrated on the films where one or both Coen Brother is named as Director of the movie. Prolific writers, they are also accredited with numerous other films whereby they have been either the screenplay writer(s) or Executive Producer(s).

As with all my film blogs, the following film critiques have been written as free from spoilers as is possible. It is not my intention to spoil your enjoyment of these classics in any way, so by way of a setup only I've outlined a taster for the film. If you want spoilers, go elsewhere on the internet! This specific blog is more a fan appreciation of the Director(s) and their art, of their films and themes but more importantly perhaps their incredible character creations. I've written these purely from a lifetime fan's perspective and I hope you enjoy.

Please consider these actors, who regularly appear, and have contributed so much to their films:

William H Macy
Steve Buscemi
Frances McDormand
John Goodman
John Turturro
Billy Bob Thornton
George Clooney
Jeff Bridges
Jon Polito
Holly Hunter
Richard Jenkins

and these are just some of the returnees. Brad Pitt, Josh Brolin, Matt Damon, Philip Seymour Hoffman and a host of some of the greatest actors of our generation have also featured in only one Coen Brothers picture and are no doubt eager to increase their tally.

Now please consider these fantastic character creations:

The Dude
Walter Sobchak
Anton Chigurh
Rooster Cogburn
Charlie Meadows
Barton Fink
Everett McGill
Llweyn Davis
Jerry Lundegaard
Marge Gunderson
Ed Crane
Osborne Cox
Harry Pfarrer

There are many more to follow. "Fargo" and "Barton Fink" are true works of art and "The Big Lebowski" is one of the funniest films of all time! That's why I'm so fascinated by the Coen Brothers. 17 unique stories and a host of unique and funny as hell characters. Being the movie geek I am I often "lose" myself into the story and prone to exclaim (to no-one in particular) that I'm having a Jerry Lundegaard day, or that I'm feeling like a cross between Walter Sobchak and Marge Gunderson. Yes I know it makes no sense whatsoever! But to fans of the Coen Brothers and their dark shade of humour, it may make one or two of you titter and I sincerely hope so. So that's another reason why I'm fascinated by the Coen Brothers. I'm also fascinated by a 30+ year collaboration on some of cinema's greatest ever films, all were Directed and written by one, either or both, and always edited by one or both under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. During their 30+ year cinematic career the Brothers have won four Oscars (Best original screenplay for Fargo and Best adapted screenplay, Best Film and Best Director for No Country for Old Men).

Before we begin a chronological list of these Coen Brothers masterpieces as an aside, I've listed these in my all time favourite order, 1-17 below. I've grown up with many of these and hold many of them close to my heart, and whilst differing opinions are available, these are mine:
  1. The Big Lebowski
  2. Fargo
  3. Barton Fink
  4. No Country for Old Men
  5. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
  6. True Grit
  7. Miller's Crossing
  8. The Man Who Wasn't There
  9. Inside Llewyn Davis
  10. The Hudsucker Proxy
  11. Burn After Reading
  12. A Serious Man
  13. Hail, Caesar
  14. Raising Arizona
  15. Blood Simple
  16. The Ladykillers
  17. Intolerable Cruelty

Blood Simple (1984)

"Gimme a call when you wanna cut off my head. I can crawl around without it"

The first Coen Brothers film and first collaboration with Frances McDormand, who married Joel Coen in the same year. With an "American Dream" type narration set against numerous wide shots of middle America, "Abby" (Frances McDormand) and "Ray" (John Getz) are travelling to Texas in a rainstorm and all appears calm. Until husband "Marty" (Dan Hedaya) telephones the hotel room they are holed up in. Enter husband and a Private Investigator with a simple task, and a constant future Coen Brothers theme of simple yet illegal ideas taking several turns for the worse.

This film is a throwback to early 1950's cinema, an homage to tight, well told thrillers and similar in many ways to film noir. There is heavy emphasis of black on white and scenes heavily dominated by shadows, with Barry Sonnenfeld excelling here as Director of Photography. There's also a heavy use of cutting away to inanimate objects, a beer glass, a whirring overhead fan and often a cigarette lighter. With a nod to the 1950's there are also numerous throwaway references to Russia and the dated differences between Russia and the USA. Although obvious references to the past and 1950's/1960's, the film is very much rooted in the time of the original filming. The film is also heavily dominated with talking heads scenes, often just two characters, inter cutting well between the two. Frances McDormand as Abby is the film's real star, with a star turn from M Emmet Walsh as cackling, mad Private Investigator "Loren Visser". Ably supported by Abby's husband Marty and lover Ray, the film is played out with a great, yet simple piano score from Carter Burwell, who has provided a musical score on every subsequent Coen Brothers movie. The soundtrack works well too, with an eclectic mix of "Sweet Dreams" by Patsy Cline and "Louie Louie" by Toots and the Maytails being the real stand outs.

Seemingly shot in one Texas town and location, this is a ponderous take on infidelity and what seems on the surface as a simple action, however, as with all future Coen Brothers films, this simple premise often results in very different results. The film builds to a tense ending and whilst not a classic, is a worthy first edition in the Coen Brothers cannon. 

It can also be viewed as a foretaste for "Fargo", which although still 12 years away, this film shares many similarities. An unexpected murder and characters with real duality, through to the settings themselves, both rural, bleak and wide open and the Fargo trademark of the straight, single track road. Fargo is far superior to it's much earlier predecessor, however more of that cinematic triumph later.

Raising Arizona (1987)

"Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase" 

Opening with a narration from Nicolas Cage as "H I McDunnough", he talks us through his frequent terms in prison, as he falls in love with "Ed", a policewoman well played by Holly Hunter. Quickly married, the newly-weds are living a blissful existence minus one addition, a child. Unable to conceive naturally and refused adoption, they decide to take matters into their own hands. Over time, this comedy has gained cult status and Nicolas Cage in particular has helped garner this. Brilliantly comedic throughout, Cage's performance carries the film. Together with Holly Hunter, they set the blueprint for the film, as the best comedic moments come in pairs of characters. As well as Cage/Hunter, John Goodman as "Gale Snoats" and Williams Forsythe as his brother "Evelle Snoats" are hilarious in their joint scenes, from their prison break to numerous driving scenes to taking up residence with Cage/Hunter, all hugely funny scenes. Although in cameo roles, Frances McDormand as "Dot" and Sam McMurray as husband "Glen" share a truly hilarious scene. In very much a singular role, Randall 'Tex' Cobb is excellent as the ethereal bounty hunter "Leonard Smalls".

Despite the stellar cast and excellent set pieces, the film and acting hasn't aged particularly well and does not stand up to future hits such as Fargo and The Big Lebowski. A minor criticism, but regular re watching of this film has borne this out. But it was very definitely a film born to make you smile and has gained cult status since release. There are numerous comedic set pieces throughout but four stand out, the above mentioned McDormand/McMurray family scene, a frantic car chase with Cage/Hunter and Goodman/Forsythe share two hilarious pieces, a botched bank robbery and car escape. John Goodman captures your imagination every time he is on screen, his befuddled and cringe worthy performance is a real joy! His muddy escape from prison is eerily reminiscent of Andy Dufresne's muddy escape in Shawshank Redemption, still seven years away from being made. Watch it again! Arms to the sky, howling to the heavens, raining, lightning. It's a great comparison. As with numerous future Coen Brothers films, it has a language and style all of it's own which lends itself to the film although again, not in the same way as Fargo or The Big Lebowski. Carter Burwell's musical score is a strangely surreal mix matched by the soundtrack choices of "Home on the Range" and Beethoven's "Ode to Joy". Barry Sonnenfeld returns as Director of Photography.

Not a favourite Coen Brothers film but one that remains touching, very funny and well worth 94 minutes of your time.

Miller's Crossing (1990)

"What's the Rumpus?"

An immediate favourite film of the Coen Brothers, every re-watch is a joy as a stellar all time cast comprising of Gabriel Byrne, John Turturro, Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, Jon Polito and Steve Buscemi conspire to bring the Brothers brilliant screenplay to life. A noir gangster film set in a 1920's/1930's American town the conflict between various warring factions is brutally depicted, as are the varying dualities of the wonderful characters brought to life. Each seemingly has a duality, an unnerving side to them and all main characters are richly layered. This joy of a film is cast from the very outset: 

Opening with a long scene of "Leo" (Albert Finney), a local Mafia crime Boss determined to show his latest adversary "Caspar" (Jon Polito) who really runs and controls the town. Aided on each side by loyal Lieutenants "Tom" (Gabriel Byrne), a Consilieri to Mafia Boss Leo, and "Dane" (JE Freeman) loyal to Caspar, beautifully shot by returning Director of Photography Barry Sonnenfeld, the scene is well and truly set. Cutting to the opening credits against the beautiful and iconic Miller's Crossing theme from Carter Burwell, this ends with yet another iconic shot of a black hat blowing on the wind through secluded woods.

Desperately in love with his Boss' muse "Verna" (a magnificent Marcia Gay Harden), we follow Tom throughout. Played brilliantly in a stand out performance by Gabriel Byrne, every long lingering shot on Byrne shows a nuanced, yet quiet and measured performance. The film's moral heart, he questions his Boss' antagonism and counsels against an all out war. Still and rarely blinking, always calm amongst the storm surrounding him, his eyes are yours throughout the film. The scenes between Byrne and Finney and Byrne/Gay Harden are exceptional and the film's true highlights. As are the scenes between Byrne and John Turturro (playing Gay Harden's troubled brother "Bernie"). One particular scene with Byrne and Turturro is yet another iconic reminder of this fantastic film, but the main scenes as described here are all simply framed and cut between the two characters. The heartbeat of the film.

A true character film at heart, Jon Polito as Caspar is outstanding as a brash, exuberant and ambitious eccentric looking to take control of the town. Counselled by JE Freeman as Dane, his quiet yet powerful henchman in the background. Marcia Gay Harden is fantastic as Verna, strong and independent and desperately wanting to return the affections and run away with Byrne's Tom. But alongside Gabriel Byrne, firstly Albert Finney as Leo dominates with another star performance as a Mafia Boss clinging to a crumbling empire and John Turturro as Verna's troubled brother Bernie. A masterful performance as ever from John Turturro, equally as nuanced as Byrne's portrayal of Tom. Minor cameos can also be seen from Coen Brothers stalwarts Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand, as well as Sam Raimi!

Act One ends with the first outright violence of the film, and another iconic moment is born. A bloody shootout in a burning building, spreading to the streets and Albert Finney, machine gun in hand and cigar in mouth, standing victorious, all accompanied by a great version of "Danny Boy". Whilst a violent film about settling scores and running the illegal scenes of betting and gambling in prohibition USA, the film's main themes of loyalty, ethics, revenge and love are to the fore. Combined with the characters duplicity it's a joy of a film and rightly an iconic piece of cinematic history and of the Coen Brothers growing masterful cannon of work. Writing this retrospectively and as a myopic fan of the both the film and the Directors, I am surprised this film did not garner any Oscar nominations or fare well in any of the respected film festival categories. 23 years on the film remains fresh and engaging with brilliantly written characters who dominate the screen. A real joy of a film.

Barton Fink (1991)

"I'll show you the life of a mind"

Number 3 in my personal all time favourite Coen Brothers film is this absolute classic. An all star cast again, however it's the two central performances from a stunning John Turturro as troubled writer "Barton Fink" and his erstwhile friend "Charlie Meadows", a performance of sublime intrigue and perfection from John Goodman. Before Charlie's introduction we see the torn life of Barton Fink, standing backstage as his play is drawing to a close, with the audience baying for the writer and warmly showing their appreciation, Barton takes his bow. But he looks strangely unfulfilled. More appreciation follows, the unfulfillment growing, Barton is invited to Hollywood to write larger, bigger productions.

Barton Fink 
(John Turturro) Simply stunning as Barton Fink, a talented writer but struggling to produce for the Hollywood studio he has now signed to. The camera follows Fink everywhere, often with long, lingering shots of just him and Turturro is magnificent as his tortuous descent is magnified. He moves from one bizarre, surreal meeting to another, again the camera constantly framing him up close. Struggling for inspiration, he retreats into his hotel room whereby he becomes fixated with a framed picture of a woman on a beach and this is magnified again with lingering shots of Barton staring intently at the picture. As it does with lingering shots of Barton staring at his typewriter, struggling with writer's block. We follow his surreal journey from one bizarre and unfulfilling appointment to the next, interspersed with long periods sat alone in his hotel room, the claustrophobia drawing in as his mind unravels.

Charlie Meadows 
(John Goodman) Matching Turturro's magnificent performance is John Goodman as an insurance salesman who lives in the hotel room next door. Always questioning, always listening, they strike up an unlikely friendship whereby Barton is the aspiring writer, using his mind to create a writing masterpiece, whereas Charlie is the common man, working hard for a liveable wage. Goodman's portrayal of the every man to Turturro's artist is brilliantly portrayed, as are his quirks and ticks and early in their relationship it's clear that Charlie's bizarre ways are not entirely conventional. The juxtaposition of their characters is a key theme of the film. However, it's their combined performance that astounds you. There is a feeling of an uneasy/thin balance between them, and brilliantly, at it's height when you're fully absorbed into the narrative, their time together is frustratingly curtailed.

Their relationship is central to the film, and interestingly only within the confines of Barton Fink's hotel room. We never see or enter Charlie's room. Claustrophobic, dank and with wallpaper peeling off the walls, it becomes another character in the film, as does the hotel itself. Seemingly full, no other guests are seen and only a sporadic cameo from Coen Brothers regular Steve Buscemi as "Chet" breaks this theme. The hotel corridor is reminiscent of The Shining, in texture and feel and has an ethereal edge to it.

Supporting and cameo roles abound in a film that only contains 25 credited roles. Jon Polito returns as put upon "Lou Breeze", Tony Shalhoub is excellent as fast talking writer "Ben Geisler", Michael Lerner is astounding as "Jack Lipnick", John Mahoney brilliantly plays "Bill Mayhew" and Judy Davis is sublime as "Audrey Taylor". There are also uncredited performances from Frances McDormand (again!) and previous Director of Photography and friend Barry Sonnenfeld. But it's Turturro and Goodman who star, their relationship central and their performances just brilliant throughout. The genius that is Roger Deakins makes his first of seven collaborations with the Brothers here as Director of Photography and the iconic shots of the decrepit hotel are a testament to him. The hotel really does become a character all of it's own in this film.

Barton Fink: "Are you in pictures?"

Lady: "Don't be silly"

Summing up the key themes of the film is difficult as many will lead to easy assumptions on the plot and remainder of the film, and I remain keen to avoid spoilers of any kind. But there are hints at racism and a religious, ideological divide and one that I won't share as it leads to a spoiler and is my assumption alone it seems! But clear themes are of the divide between artists and the "common man", of mass producing for the Hollywood machine, and of writers trying to write a unique screenplay, against the objections of others. It's a triumph and 21 years on hasn't aged in any way. The darkest of dark comedy in many ways, multi layered, and utterly, utterly brilliant. The first Coen Brothers film to be nominated for Oscars, Michael Lerner's fantastic portrayal of Film Studio Boss Jack Lipnick deserved the nod, but all three nominations went unfulfilled. I love this film so much yet restrained by my not wanting to place overt spoilers! I cannot recommend this film highly enough.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

"The Future is Now"

To set the scene for this surreal, otherworldly and deeply comic classic: New York, New Years Eve 1958/9 and the camera, from a long shot of heavy snow across the city closes in on the famous Hudsucker Industries Tower and their huge circular clock about to strike midnight. Both midnight/midday and the circle are key themes throughout even through to the circular, looping nature of the film's narrative. With the brief narration merging with the first of several superb choices of classical music (Carter Burwell again in charge of musical production and his inspired choices of pieces from Georges Bizet's "Carmen", Frederic Chopin's "Chopin Waltz" and Tchaikovsky's Waltz from "Swan Lake" are real delights and a stand out of the film), the camera pans in on Tim Robbins, now present day, seeking work. "Norville Barnes" (Robbins), with his beaming and boyish smile, eager to please and fresh faced college graduate soon finds employment at Hudsucker Industries, but not quite in the way he envisaged. Robbins plays the goof ball, dupe character well, with a tongue firmly in his cheek and is the film's standout performer. Unable to ever grasp why he's been placed in such a vaunted position, we follow his every move, every ill judged comment and every time he is taken advantage of. Ably supported by a constantly cigar chomping and gruff Paul Newman as "Sidney Mussburger" and fast talking, flirtatious news reporter "Amy Archer" (Jennifer Jason Leigh) it quickly becomes apparent all is not as it seems. Hudsucker Industries are seeking a "proxy" or dupe to head the company and plunge their share price to an all time low, thus enabling those in the know to both prepare for this and reap the benefits of a soon to be soaring share price again. Ring any bells in the so called "real world"?

The scenes between the three main characters are key as it drives the near two hour story forward at a pace, but more importantly it provides huge black comedy to an already entertaining film and introduces another key Coen Brothers theme, duplicity.

Picking but one of numerous possible scenes for inclusion as an example, an early diner scene of Robbins' Norville Barnes being duped by Leigh's charismatic Archer is brilliantly played, framed, cut and shot by the Directors. A simple scene but interspersed with a bizarre narration from two nearby taxi drivers, it covers a multitude of hints for the audience as well as being hugely comedic and duplicitous and so much more. This theme continues throughout the film with surface characters having much more to hide from their public face. In addition to our three main characters there are varying degrees of supporting and cameo roles including Charles Durning as "Waring Hudsucker", and John Mahoney as "Chief", plus a star turn from Bruce Campbell as "Smitty", a news reporter and regular receiver of a slap from Jennifer Jason Leigh! Sam Raimi also has a small cameo, as do Coen Brothers regulars Steve Buscemi, Jon Polito and John Goodman. However it's Jim True-Frost as "Buzz", the lift operator, who deserves special mention. Crazy, inane and injecting more comedy into this farce, a great and well used cameo.

Throughout the last Act there are several uses of cine film, intercut with black and white images and surreal montages that are cleverly inserted that perpetuate an almost cartoonish feel and certainly build the surreal atmosphere. Added to the beautiful use of the classical music score, this can be flat out strangely dark at times. And very, very funny. It's a gem in the Coen's catalogue of classics, yet deeply panned by critics on release and remains a "dark secret" within their catalogue. Far funnier than it's given credit for, perhaps the criticism is markedly at the performances which fit the context of the film, as they're never serious, never looking inwardly and always played with a tongue firmly in it's cheek. The first Coen Brothers film where another screenwriter was credited with the screenplay, their long time collaborator and friend, Sam Raimi. Not as sharp and pinpoint as many of their future films, the film has aged somewhat in the 19 years since release but remains a hidden gem.

Fargo (1996)

"Oh he's a little guy. Kinda funny lookin'"

The film's opening slide sets the premise for this all time classic Coen Brothers film and spawned numerous conspiracy theories and tall tales along the way as on release in 1996 there were continual reports of people going to specific locations in search of a buried suitcase full of money!

From the "This is a true story..." disclaimer the film follows a three Act structure with the first Act brilliantly portraying a desperate man, deeply in debt approaching two travelling criminals to kidnap his wife, a kidnap that turns into a horrific and graphic triple murder, and the beginning to one of the greatest films of all time. Set in Fargo and Brainerd, North Dakota this 98 minute film has everything and relies on a common Coen Brothers theme of a simple plan going very wrong. Deeply and darkly comedic, the majority of the main characters from a surprisingly small overall cast of just 38 actors are immediately introduced in the first Act:

Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy) Deeply in debt, bumbling and bungling, with permanent fixed fake smile across his face, Jerry is brilliantly brought to the screen by William H Macy, with Macy again showing what a versatile, excellent and comedic actor he is. He brings the character to life expertly and his descent into darkness is near perfection. Forever on the fringes of life, this permeates through his family, work and every facet of his life as he continues to try and cover up the grisly and unwanted murder of his wife. A performance that will resonate with more of us than will admit to it and a performance befitting of his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Carl Showalter 
(Steve Buscemi) My personal roll call of favourite actors continues with the brilliant Steve Buscemi. A constant throughout the film as he brings Carl's manic, desperate and incessantly talking character to life in a sublime performance. Yet another Coen Brothers character who is seemingly in control of both himself and his destiny yet underneath the cracks are already evident and his life spinning out of control. Part of the two man kidnap team with partner Gaear Grimsrud, their scenes together set the tone for this bizarre and surreal film. Carl, outgoing and assured incessantly talks throughout their time together, aptly demonstrated in the first Act bar room scenes and their long car journey.

Gaear Grimsrud 
(Peter Stormare) Despite his Partner's powerhouse performance, it's Stormare who dominates the screen with a near silent and brooding psychopathic intensity. Cigarette constantly dangling from his mouth with very minimal dialogue but a stunning performance of a detached, devil may care attitude which is hilarious and scarily angry in equal measure. A storming performance, and the pun wasn't intended.

Completing the first Act alone are excellent supporting and cameo performances that complete the Lundegaard family and their extended family, plus two key additions. Kristin Rudrud is excellent as "Jean Lundegaard" the hapless wife of Jerry, with Tony Denman playing a deadpan role as their son "Scotty Lundegaard". Jean's Father and Jerry's employer is "Wade Gustafson" (Harve Presnell) assisted, often comically so by "Stan Grossman" (Larry Brandenburg). "Shep Proudfoot" (Steven Reevis) is also a key player throughout in a subtle cameo. As the first Act draws to a conclusion amid multiple graphic murders and subtle unexplained plot strands, the film introduces us to two further main characters, Fargo itself and it's strange, quirky and often undistinguishable language, and a performance from Frances McDormand that was rightly acclaimed with an Oscar for Best Actress:

Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) Introduced at the beginning of Act Two as a heavily pregnant local Police Detective slowly and meticulously investigating the crime scene(s) amid the bleak and snowbound backdrop. In only two short acts 
McDormand's performance is sublime and nuanced and perfectly encapsulates everything that makes this film an ultimate classic for the ages. It's a gentle, knowing performance of touches and nods, a detachment from the situation as she builds a picture for the audience of the killers and their methods which matches what we saw in Act One. I have dissected my favourite scene from the entire film which will hopefully surprise even the Coen Brothers purists who may read this but it encapsulates everything again that McDormand puts into her role and mirrors the film brilliantly. Before that, due credit to John Carroll Lynch as her superbly understated Husband "Norm Gunderson". Their scenes together are always awkwardly amusing with minimal dialogue and always shot either in bed or eating, but their love for each other is genuinely touching and heart warming and the real heartbeat of the film.

The short scene I have dissected below is just two minutes long with an old school friend who crumbles before her eyes after making an ill judged pass at her. It's both a hilariously awkward scene and brilliantly written with sublime portrayals from Frances McDormand and Steve Park.

Marge arrives for her meeting with long lost friend "Mike Yanagita" (Steve Park) elegantly dressed for the first time in the film. Throughout the film she has been constantly seen in her Police uniform. Mike greets her rather too fondly (the camera zooms in on his real pleasure and not wanting to end their embrace) and Marge announces "I'm pregnant!" An awkward and stunted conversation ensues about the criminal case, husband Norm and their joint school days. It's clear immediately that Mike is overly keen and so pleased to see Marge and he leaves his seat to sit next to her.

"I was married. I was married to Linda Cooksey. You mind if I sit over here?"

Mike sits next to Marge who's face is perfectly captured in the picture opposite and a stern "No, why not sit back over there. I prefer that"
Marge's response is replaced by several false smiles as she tries to re-engage Mike in conversation however he's crestfallen and slowly slips into a deeper and darker conversation before admitting his wife had recently died after a long illness. Breaking down in front of a bemused Marge unable to take in the immediacy of this turn in the conversation.
Mike: "Then I saw you on the TV and I remembered you know, I always liked you"

Marge: "Well I always liked you Mike"

Mike: "I always liked you so much"

Mike: "I been so lonely"

Drinking heavily and quickly on her Diet Coke, Marge's face is a picture of bemusement and abject terror as she wonders how she has found herself in this position with an old friend now breaking down in front of her. The scene is a simple one with only two cameras at two wonderfully different and wonderfully surreal performances.

Fargo itself and the local fractured, strangely understated and to the point language are other distinct characters. The language and dialect is distinctly Nordic with all characters constantly nodding and "Ya" instead of "yes" "heck d'ya mean" and "You Betcha!" plus many many more. The language may be grating to some and is often criticised as disengaging and confusing but taken as a whole it compliments the madness of the film. The wide shots depicting Fargo and Brainerd are perfectly shown in full daylight at the opening of Act 2, showing a bleak and remote landscape as far as the eye can see, bitterly cold and desolate. This remote setting and the iconic single track road shares many similarities with the Coen Brothers first film Blood Simple. Both are added characters in their own right and both of which were nominated for Oscars with The Coen Brothers securing their first of four wins for their wonderful screenplay and soon to be regular Director of Photography was also nominated and unfortunate not to win for his excellent cinematography.

Whenever I'm reminded of Fargo, and whilst writing this short blog, I've smiled constantly at a triumph of a film. What better compliment is there! Regular music collaborator Carter Burwell provides another understated musical score, the gem of which is the opening theme based on a Norwegian folk song entitled "The Lost Sheep", a slowly building masterpiece of a track. It is spliced throughout the film alongside many other fine choices. A film that contains so many of my favourite all time acting talent in surreal roles of absolute brilliance contained within a film that never ages, always raises a smile and is simply astounding. I'm off for a date with Marge Gunderson and then I'm taking a snow shovel and looking for that briefcase full of cash.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

"His name is Lebowski? That's your name Dude!"

My favourite Coen Brothers film and a film without equal. Fifteen years and going strong, vibrant as ever with every watch. Enjoy! "You mind if I do a J?"

Following a tumbleweed through an open Los Angeles, "The Stranger" (Sam Elliott) narrates an opening monologue about "The Dude" (Jeff Bridges) and we're immediately introduced to the world of Jeffrey Lebowski aka The Dude. A stoner and carefree attitude to match, he is mistaken for "The Big Lebowski" (David Huddleston) a multi millionaire with a life and attitude vastly differently to The Dude. A urinated on rug "they pee'd on the rug, Walter" he demands compensation from the intended target. A stolen rug later, not to mention the offer of a blowjob from The Big Lebowski's wife "Bunny" (Tara Reid) and The Dude is embroiled in a kidnap payoff that goes disastrously and hilariously wrong! This, the Coen Brother's first big out and out comedy, is a romp and laugh out loud funny from beginning to end. Using their staple theme of a simple plan going horribly awry, this masterpiece of a film is subtly funny too with a host of rich characters and star turns in many cameo and supporting roles. But first, who is The Dude?

The Dude (Jeff Bridges) A stoner/hippy, The Dude is brilliantly brought to life by Jeff Bridges. The performance has everything and is so natural at times it's almost as though Bridges is playing the part with no care for the camera whatsoever. It's just so relaxed, natural and an ease of performance that is so captivating. And hilarious throughout. Named Jeffrey Lebowski, he always corrects anyone daring to call him by that name and early in the film he introduces himself to his Lebowski namesake by reiterating the immortal and iconic lines "I'm The Dude. So that's what you call me. You know, that or, His Dudeness, or Duder, or El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing". And always, despite the crazy ride we endure and indeed enjoy with him, "The Dude Abides!"

Always bowling, he is joined in a trio of chaos with best friends "Walter Sobchak" (John Goodman) and "Donny Kerabatsos" (Steve Buscemi). Walter is an angry and permanently on edge war veteran, with John Goodman's amazing performance in it's own surreal way, an equal to the role of The Dude. Goodman is incredible at times, a force of nature and anger, he is also subtle and often funny, though not intentionally!. During a game of bowling, an opponent refuses to accept he stepped over the bowling line, and Goodman, steaming from the ludicrous injustice of this pulls a gun with the immortal line "Mark it Zero! It's a League game Smoke". The interplay with Donny, a deliberately understated and quieter role for Steve Buscemi is excellent ("shut the fuck up Donny"), but the three characters together, riffing anecdotal tales and jibes are superb and are the core of the film. In an all star supporting cast, David Huddleston is excellent as the other Jeffrey Lebowski with his daughter "Maude Lebowski" brilliantly played by Julianne Moore. Philip Seymour Hoffman also makes his bow in a Coen Brothers film for the first time as The Big Lebowski's assistant "Brandt" and although a cameo, is hilarious in every scene. The painfully awkward moments shared between these three excellent actors as they deal with a missing toe, a missing body and of course the missing rug is priceless. The film is scattered with further bizarre and surreal supporting performances, notably "Jackie Treehorn" (Ben Gazzara) and a camp star turn as "Knox Harrington" from David Thewlis as friend and confidant to Maude Lebowski. His performance of over the top exuberance and surreal engagements with Maude sum up the film brilliantly. There are also important cameos for returnees to previous Coen Brothers films with Peter Stormare as "Karl Hungus" a nihilist with a penchant for marmosets and the brilliant John Turturro as "Jesus Quintana" who was given one of a host of classic screenplay lines "Nobody fucks with the Jesus!".

With two especially surreal, drug induced interludes between scenes, a terrific screenplay that is laced with quotable classics, subtle comedy that will still make you smile on repeated watching, this is the Coen Brothers at their very best. Carter Burwell again provides a minimal score, but it's the soundtrack that stands out and there are a multitude to choose from, echoing The Dude's preference for the late 60's, early 70's vibe. Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me", The Gypsy Kings version of "Hotel California" Kenny Rogers' "Just Dropped in (To see what Condition my Condition was in) and Mozart's "Requiem in D Minor" complete an eclectic mix and a thoroughly recommended stand alone soundtrack album, all of which fit the film perfectly. There are many, many others.

Two hours with The Dude are a joy and funny as hell. As The Stranger narrates at the end, it's good that we have someone like The Dude in the world. Amen to that. This is the main theme of the film and it could be argued this theme is heightened against his best friend Walter. With the film rooted approximately in 1991 (and the film starts with President George HW Bush declaring war against Iraq), Walter, with constant, if comedic references to Vietnam and his unresolved anger, we root for The Dude, his outlook on life and more pacifist tendencies. We see the film entirely through the eyes of The Dude and follow his every move and therein lies the juxtaposition the film espouses, of The Dude's slacker, laid back and neutral take on life to his best friend's explosive reactions.

Roger Deakins excellent cinematography deserved more recognition than it received and similarly the film as a whole, which is still largely seen as a cult classic and which did not feature at any of the main festival award shows. A film that has spawned a religion and yearly conventions in many worldwide cities, perhaps that is the film's ultimate recommendation and reward.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

"Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side. Keep on the sunny side of life"

Based on Homer's "The Odyssey" but set in the depression of 1930's Mississippi, this is yet another Coen Brothers comedy that at first glance doesn't appear so! But with suspended disbelief and a tongue firmly planted in cheek, it's a real joy, and twelve years on has gained cult status and classic quotable lines status too. Opening in black and white sepia like tones, our three main characters are seen escaping from a prison chain gang and quickly the premise is set, to find the hidden treasure always talked about by "Everett McGill", the excellent George Clooney. From one escape to another and with some wise words from a blind man en-route, they also form a friendship with a black guitarist and perform as the "Soggy Bottom Boys" as they seek their treasure laden reward. Oh, and there's a baptism in a forest with a congregation appearing from nowhere, and a gun running shoot out with BabyFace Nelson. All in the first twenty minutes, and all very Coen Brothers. It's madness! And it's a joy! And the story has literally only just begun.

The star is Clooney as "Everett McGill", eloquent and educated, front and centre of the camera's lens. It becomes evident that this, in the main, is his story, and the camera reinforces this with constant close ups and references to him. Accompanied by "Delmar O'Donnell" (Tim Blake Nelson) and "Pete Hogwallop" (a returning John Turturro), the three main characters are excellent together, and always hilariously so. Complemented by an ensemble cast of cameo's, from Michael Badalucco as "BabyFace Nelson", a wanted criminal whose performance screams from the screen, to John Goodman as "Big Dan", a fast talking salesman whose scenes are criminally too few. Charles Durning returns again to a Coen Brothers film and is excellent as always as "Pappy O'Daniel", extrovert local Governor and Holly Hunter's performance as "Penny" is light and subtle and expertly done. As with many Coen Brothers films, the language itself is an important character and is eminently quotable. "He's Bona Fide" is a regular riposte against Clooney's Everett McGill, but his lines of "I'm a Dapper Dan Man!" and "We're in a tight spot!" have become legend. But the southern drawl and often unintelligible language is another key theme, sometimes off putting, but as a whole complements the film. The first and indeed only time Carter Burwell did not provide the musical score, T-Bone Burnett scored this with a minimal and subtle overall film score that verges from melancholic to joyous and life affirming and is a real charm. The soundtrack to the film, often in the hands of The Soggy Bottom Boys themselves are also a real charm with stand out versions of traditional bluegrass songs such as "I am a Man of Constant Sorrow" and "In the Jailhouse Now". Other beautiful and admittedly mournful songs are also littered through the film such as the eponymous "You are my Sunshine" by Norman Blake, "Keep on the Sunny Side" by The Whites and the beautiful and haunting "Down to the River to Pray" by the brilliant Alison Krauss. There are many, many other songs of the period which are often ironic but charming and amusing in equal measure and add perfectly to the film.

The film's near constant sepia tone adds to the back story of the era and with an array of vastly different, yet wide open vistas to shoot, the film is a testament to returning Director of Photography, Roger Deakins who was again nominated but failed to win an Oscar for his mighty work here.

The film is flat out nuts at times! The first twenty minutes as described above do the film no justice, but the film continues in this vein and is surrealistically strange. But utterly compelling and utterly hilarious. A real joy that will charm you, with characters and a story that will amuse in great measure.

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

"Me, I don't talk much...I just cut the hair"

Set in 1949 and completely in Black and White, this is film noir in every sense, from the constant use of light and dark and shadows throughout the story of "Ed Crane", a disaffected and alienated character at odds with the world that surrounds him.

Ed Crane 
(Billy Bob Thornton) A career high performance from Billy Bob Thornton as the disaffected and apathetic barber Ed Crane. A slow, methodical and still performance perfectly encapsulating Ed's distance from a world he doesn't understand and from a world he doesn't want to be a part of. Against a busy backdrop of people and chattering conversations his vacant stare is continually evident at a world in general he simply seems to have given up on despite a successful career and wife. This is Billy Bob Thornton's film from start to finish as we follow his every move and he's in nearly every scene of the film. He is captivating as Crane, cigarette perennially dangling from his mouth, blank, cold expression, so alienated from the world. Thornton's performance is mesmerising. His poise and detached performance grab your attention and keep you involved in the film throughout. Though minimal actual dialogue, which is obviously deliberate, we see the film through his eyes and expressions whilst he also narrates the film throughout. A simple ransom premise turns much darker very quickly, yet despite being at the centre of a mess he created, Ed remains detached and unblinking, and if you watch closely enough, often deliberately so. His tale of disconnection and almost ghost like living is also reinforced by the bizarre UFO scene and interaction towards the end of the film which is totally out of keeping with the film or is it? It's a haunting and beautiful portrayal, of light blended with a lot of dark and Billy Bob Thornton in true career best mode. 

Frances McDormand returns again in a Coen Brothers film, this time as "Doris" Ed Crane's exuberant and outgoing wife, having an affair with "Big Dave" played excellently by James Gandolfini. "Creighton Tolliver", a venture capitalist seeking investment is superbly played by Jon Polito, and there's an excellent early cameo performance from a young Scarlett Johansson as "Birdy". One further stand out performance belongs to Tony Shalhoub as "Freddy Riedenschneider" a fast talking and utterly bizarre Defence Lawyer. Each performance seemingly flits around the central performance of Billy Bob Thornton, each with the differing reactions and results, each adding to further unseen plot twists.

The simple premise of an illegal idea going wrong is a staple Coen Brothers theme and here the premise is simple enough: Aware of his wife's affair with Big Dave, Ed pressures Big Dave into paying a $10,000 ransom to stop word of the affair reaching his own wife and family. However, Big Dave is totally unaware that Ed instigated the ransom in the first place, and following an investment with Venture Capitalist Creighton Tolliver, the story quickly winds to the film's first of many twists. Backed by a beautiful musical score which mixes both original pieces from returning music collaborator Carter Burwell and numerous Beethoven piano pieces, some of which are played by the reluctant child prodigy Birdy, this is a subtle and dark comedy in places, but a typical Coen Brothers thriller movie overall. Another continuing theme of the Coen Brothers is the use of fractured, yet distinct dialogue from the locals in the screenplay. Deliberately so, the conversations are "localised" but are also quirky and a language all of their own. The black and white and stylised noir feel to the film is evident throughout with the constant theme of shadows and light and dark brilliantly captured by Director of Photography Roger Deakins who yet again garnered an Oscar nomination but did not win. Together with the constant lighting effects, Deakins and both Directors should also be lauded for their close up camera angles used constantly on Billy Bob Thornton, seemingly forever capturing his thunderous performance as depicted below, just below eye level and with Thornton staring into the distance. Myopic and wholly biased, this is a real treat of a Coen Brothers film.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

"You want tact, call a tactician. You want an ass nailed, you come see Gus Petch"

Starting with Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" and Geoffrey Rush singing along in a cameo as "Donovan", this black comedy crunches to a comedic change immediately as he finds his wife "Bonnie" (Stacy Travis) cheating on him. Over the opening credits is Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds" which perfectly sets up this tale of love, dishonour and divorce. Particular credit must immediately go to regular music supervisor Carter Burwell for his choice of musical tracks throughout, with several more Paul Simon songs included along with Edith Piaf's eponymous "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" as particular stand outs. Similarly, Director of Photography Roger Deakins presents a vibrant and engaging picture. The film itself? Less so. A lot less so and (drum roll please) my choice of the worst Coen Brothers film. The first film in which the Brothers have collaborated with other screenwriters for the screenplay with Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone and John Romano all receiving writing credits. Centreing on divorce and the huge industry this has spawned, the film is blackly comedic at times, but overall appears a mish mash and, dare I say it, a misstep from the Coen Brothers. Whilst Clooney and Zeta-Jones are good together in their scenes, the overall film struggles with a firm identity. Is it a dark comedy or commentary on the loss of values in today's society? It deals with the emptiness of success, yet the film flips from a feel good story to a ruthless portrayal of life so many times it leaves the audience in limbo. The portrayal of Zeta-Jones and her friends as ruthless, gold digging, divorce seeking women is a little distasteful to say the least.

A misstep for me I'm afraid, and the weakest of the Coen Brothers film legacy, and from a stellar cast from whom I expected better. George Clooney is the film's one redeeming feature and is very good as "Miles", a vain, ruthlessly detached and successful family lawyer, ably assisted by a very good Paul Adelstein as "Wrigley". Other key characters are led by Catherine Zeta-Jones as "Marilyn", Edward Herrmann as "Rex Rexroth" and a good performance from Richard Jenkins as "Freddy Bender". Billy Bob Thornton cameos as a Texas Oilman "Howard Doyle" and Cedric the Entertainer as "Gus Petch" has the film's funniest line with "I'm gonna nail your ass!". However, this 100 minute film labours with no purpose and grated on me to such a degree I wondered if the Coen Brothers had any input into the film whatsoever. The characters are mainly two dimensional and frankly horrid. A clunker of a film that left me with a very bitter after taste. Very few redeeming features whatsoever.

The Ladykillers (2004)

"You brought your bitch to the waffle hut?"

A remake of the 1955 original, this is the first time the Coen Brothers have re-imagined a previous release. This funny at times black comedy sees Tom Hanks and his ragtag team of criminals with a simple plan (a standard Coen Brothers theme) to tunnel into a nearby casino and steal the substantial takings. Apart from their ineptitude, they only have one problem, a God fearing landlady called Marva Munson! Similarly to Intolerable Cruelty, regular Music Supervisor Carter Burwell deserves praise for a mix of period tracks that help propel the film along but special praise is reserved for (again) Director of Photography Roger Deakins for shooting the vastly different settings and again providing an engaging and immersive back drop to the film. There are strikingly different scenes and settings with the house itself the centrepiece which is dated and well lit, in stark contrast to the modern settings of the casino, waffle house and sheriff's office. It's the final scenes on a bridge late at night where Deakins excels, bringing to life a damp and dreary exterior to give the bridge a real ethereal and immersive feel. 

Played brilliantly by Irma P Hall, "Marva Munson" is the film's heart and soul. Quiet and unassuming, after advertising her spare room for rent, "Professor Dorr" (Tom Hanks) arrives and immediately takes the room. Quickly introducing his team under the guise of practising musicians, "Garth Pancake", brilliantly played by JK Simmons, "The General" (Tzi Ma), "Lump Hudson" (Ryan Hurst) and "Gawain MacSam" (Marlon Wayans) take residence in the basement and begin tunnelling. Various minor roles are filled around the central characters, however the film's main flaw is that although a back story is provided for all main characters they are neither interesting or engaging and quickly forgettable.

Hanks and Hall share the scene billing, and the distinctions between the two are stark. Hall is quiet and trusting, whilst Hanks is sharply dressed, eloquent and often seemingly talking in riddles. With a cackling and haughty laugh, Hanks is very funny and very much on form, often the mediator of the gang quarrels and misdemeanour's. However, it's the dual scenes between Hanks' Professor Dorr and Irma P Hall's trusting Marva Munson that catch the eye are excellently portrayed and bring a genuinely touching edge to the film. Sadly there is very little more than this. It can be a fun ride at times, just not often or engaging enough. A dark comedy with it's share of few laughs and following a key Coen Brothers theme of a simple plan/heist gone wrong. Not a high water mark in the Brothers cannon of work.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

"What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?"

Nominated for eight Oscars, the Coen Brothers themselves won in three categories (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay) taking their current personal tally to four Oscars. The other Oscar was awarded for a thunderous performance from Javier Bardem as Best Supporting Actor, more of which later. Numerous other awards followed for a film that is simply breathtaking at times and at others is a slow, methodical take on consistently used Coen Brothers themes of a simple plan going awry and of luck and chance playing a huge part in every day lives. Based on the book of the same name by Cormac McCarthy there is a particularly minimal score from regular collaborator Carter Burwell with often only sounds used to convey the current scene, a coin dropped, a distant rustle or particularly a tracking transponder "blip" that when used is the dominant sound of the scene. On first viewing the lack of a musical score was immediately evident but on subsequent viewings this subtle, almost subconscious collection of sounds become the score.

Regular collaborator and Director of Photography Roger Deakins was also nominated for an Oscar but again (unfairly) lost out and it is to him we start this journey as the film itself opens with continual back drops of wide open Texas plains and deserts and what becomes an integral character of the film itself. The first two Acts in particular are immersed in these wide open plains and this very integral part of the film is shot and framed beautifully throughout. The film immediately has a feel and look of Fargo (minus the snow) in it's vast open vistas as far as the eye can see, bleak and very remote. This two hour film starts as it means to go on, at it's own pace and never rushed to tell an intriguing moral story of luck and destiny interspersed with ferocious bursts of graphic violence. Commencing with a matter of fact and monotone narration from Sheriff "Ed Tom Bell" (Tommy Lee Jones) he details his family history with a sense of melancholy at a world he no longer understands and the narration itself is stunted and awkward in line with the adaptation from the book. As the narration ends we are introduced to the main character of this brilliantly understated classic of a film, plus the man trying to catch him and a man very definitely trying to avoid him as their individual lives now intersect.

Anton Chigurh 
(Javier Bardem) A brooding, menacing killing machine who refuses to allow anything and anyone to stop him. It's a powerhouse performance of minimal dialogue but with an awkward smile and piercing stares, his determination to kill anything in his path is astonishing and well deserving of his Oscar win for best supporting actor. A misnomer in terms of the title of the award, but fully deserving nonetheless. Dispassionate and leaving some encounters entirely to the chance of a coin flip, the theme of chance is continually soaked throughout the film. Chigurh's constant menace never allows anyone else to settle, he is forever dictating the course of events, to his rules and for an outcome he desires. A cold, calculating hitman and an utterly astonishing portrayal from Javier Bardem.

Ed Tom Bell 
(Tommy Lee Jones) Trying to catch this killer is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, brilliantly brought to life by Tommy Lee Jones. Again with very little dialogue, what there is, is portrayed excellently as methodical, thorough and calculating, with long lingering shots on Jones as he pieces the puzzle together. Very much the heart and soul of the film he often seemingly talks to himself, or aloud or directly to the audience and this is particularly striking, as is the length of performance of each scene that Ed Tom Bell is in. As with the film it's never rushed and even without extensive dialogue the character is given ample room to breath and explore. Tommy Lee Jones' role here is reminiscent of Frances McDormand's role in Fargo, an older and more experienced local Police representative who can distance themselves from the killings yet through their experience and local knowledge able to piece a difficult puzzle of clues together.

Llewelyn Moss 
(Josh Brolin) A simple man who benefits from others misfortune and happens to be in the right place at the right time following a simple drug deal gone wrong. With enough money to set up himself and his wife "Carla Jean" (a brilliant Kelly MacDonald) for the rest of their lives, he risks all to act on impulse and out of guilt. A masterful performance from Brolin (again there is very minimal dialogue with which to work) as he tries to stay one step ahead of his many adversaries but resigned perhaps that the twist of fate won't work in his favour as he asks Carla Jean when he departs "If I don't come back, tell Mother I love her". "Your Mother's dead Llewelyn". "Well then I'll tell her myself".

These three superlative performances dominate the screen but are ably supported by first Kelly MacDonald as Llewelyn's dutiful wife and Woody Harrelson in a cameo role as bounty hunter "Carson Wells". Garret Dillahunt provides light and comic relief as "Wendell", Ed Tom Bell's Deputy Sheriff and sidekick and Tess Harper excels in a small cameo as Ed's wife "Loretta Bell".

Fully deserving of their Oscars and various accolades this is perhaps the Coen Brothers most openly violent and bloodiest film they've created to date. The killings are dispassionate and graphic and equally so the aftermath of the various bloody events. The exception to the rule is Chigurh's early use of his crude animal stun gun but the remainder of his killings are graphic with trails of blood left or indeed followed by the Directors in the aftermath. In stark contrast to the overall tone of the film, these stand out against a slow, methodical film that never feels long or rushed to a conclusion, the killings are violent and often elongated. Against this violent backdrop and vast mountain vistas that surround this classic, the scene I've chosen to dissect here is the exact opposite, the infamous coin toss scene:

Chigurh enters a garage to pay for gas & immediately dominates the discussion after setting the ground rules "What business is it of yours where I'm from, Friendo". The Attendant (Gene Jones) is shocked by his aggression & continually stumbles now with simple responses to Chigurh's questions & observations.
Chigurh mocks the attendant's accent and with a sigh proclaims "You don't know what you're talking about, do you?" as the Attendant continues to struggle with the abstract nature of the conversation.
Chigurh: "Call it"
Attendant: "For what?"
Chigurh: "Just call it"
Attendant: "Well, we need to know what we're calling it for here"
Chigurh: "You need to call it. I can't call it for you. It wouldn't be fair".

The Attendant explains he didn't put anything up to which Chigurh's telling response is a nodding "Yes, you did. You've been putting it up your whole life, you just didn't know it". Chigurh tellingly notes the date of the coin and the amount of years it has been "travelling" to get here before pressing the Attendant to call it again. The Attendant guesses correctly and with a shocking smile and warm "well done!" the tension of the scene deflates only to be re inflated immediately as he warns against mixing this lucky coin in with the others. With a strange raising of his Chigurh gives the Attendant another look as he mocks him again with his explanation of the coin and it's relevance and leaves the store. A simple scene with two cameras initially with slightly longer shots before two further, closer angles are used for the remainder of the scene. 

The previously noted theme of chance is highly used throughout, as are key themes of loss, regret, fate and a feeling of alienation at not being able to dictate the events and course of life. Anton Chigurh is almost immune from these themes, however not from another overriding theme of karma. Up to interpretation, the film works on many more levels and themes but as a fan of the genre itself and the Directorial Brothers, this will in years to come be rightly acclaimed as an all time classic.

Burn after Reading (2008)

"Independent thought is not valued there"

With an all star cast of Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton and John Malkovich, interweaving of completely unconnected characters against a backdrop of a simple plan that goes horribly and hilariously wrong, the Coen Brothers score with yet another hit. The simple plan sets up the film - a found disc with valuable CIA information is to be sold back to it's originator. A simple hand off and money collected? Not in the hands of the Coen Brothers. This darkly funny film opens and closes with Google earth style images and with the CIA prominent, this is clearly a political take on the ineptitude of the CIA and the intrusion of surveillance on modern society. As well as the CIA and spying theme, it's a hilarious tale of idiotic characters experiencing mid life crises and leading successful yet unfulfilling lives. Every character has a common trait of high self importance and are aloof with a myopic vision of how they alone function within the world and this becomes ever more evident as the film progresses. A common Coen Brothers theme of duplicity is also highly prominent. But the characters are the film's true star and you're immediately engrossed as to how these vastly different characters lives collide.

John Malkovich is the standout as "Osborne Cox", a CIA analyst who whilst being demoted, quits his career job. A sterling performance of anger and frustration, Malkovich dominates the screen as surreal events surround and consume him. His wife "Katie Cox" is brilliantly played by Tilda Swinton, who again shows what a hugely talented actress she is. 
A Doctor, but cold, dispassionate and disconnected from life, the husband/wife scenes are black humour at their very best, often delivered completely deadpan both comically and in relation to their colourless lives. George Clooney returns in what has been jointly recognised by himself and the Coen's as the third in his "idiot trilogy!". "Harry Pfarrer" is twitchy, self absorbed and religiously health conscious with Clooney bringing all this and more to a hugely comedic role. Quoted as not being interested in "fun and games", this is the exact opposite to what Harry is seeking from life as we follow Harry's bizarre narrative strand and as is aptly demonstrated by his basement creation! Frances McDormand returns again, this time as "Linda Litzke" a Fitness Instructor desperately seeking money to pay for various cosmetic surgeries. Talking incessantly, always on edge and nervous, she is also desperate to surround herself with positive only people. She is also desperate for love and regularly uses Internet dating websites which lead to hilarious results. Working with Linda is "Chad", an idiotic, air headed and funny as hell Brad Pitt. His performance as a geeky health freak is to be seen to be believed! Their joint scenes are among the funniest of the film. Amongst numerous supporting roles there are three standouts worthy of recognition, especially Elizabeth Marvel as Clooney's wife "Sandy" and JK Simmons returns to a Coen Brothers film again, this time as an idiotic "CIA Chief". The standout cameo role goes to Richard Jenkins as "Ted", who, as McDormand's boss, he is heartbreakingly brilliant. With the chaos all around him, he simply wants to profess his love to Linda who is completely oblivious. A great cameo performance.

Carter Burwell this time provides a more traditional film score, complimenting the building tension of this excellent black comedy with a "hum" that accompanies the action throughout. No particular stand out choices in music tracks but a mix of contemporary and classical as the narratives weave between these disparate characters. Emmanuel Lubezki takes over from regular Director of Photography Roger Deakins and equally weaves the varying locations and narratives well and compliments the Directors choice of Enemy of the State style depictions of overhead spy satellites and ultra fast zooms reinforcing the spying/CIA theme. At only 96 minutes and edited frenetically at times by the Coen's in their alter ego guise of Roderick Jaynes, the film moves along at a fast pace and with a stellar cast is a joyously black comedy film.

A Serious Man (2009)

Continuing with a Coen Brothers theme of starting many of their films with a vague or oblique quotation or reference, A Serious Man commences with a quotation from an 11th Century Rabbi, Rashi: 

"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you"

This sets the tone for this darkly comedic film, which has been described as the Coen Brothers most personal film. The film commences with a prologue: A short, subtitled period tale of a Jewish husband arriving home to his wife with a story to tell. He was helped on his way home by a man, and has subsequently invited this man for tea to thank him. His wife, horrified, claims he died three years ago! Calling him a "Dybbuk" (possessive spirit/soul) of a dead person, the wife stabs the visitor, who leaves bloodied and dying back into the winter night. Dissolving from this Prologue into present day with a loud and rocking rendition of "Somebody to Love" by Jefferson Airplane, another bizarre and surreal Coen Brothers classic is underway.

Our main characters are quickly introduced: "Larry Gopnik" (Michael Stuhlbarg), a College Professor who seemingly has it all, a successful career, two children and loving wife, however it's evident that his calm exterior is masking deeper issues. His wife "Judith Gopnik" (Sari Lennick) quickly requests a "get", a ritual Jewish divorce, so she can marry "Sy Ableman" (brilliant performance from Fred Melamed). Both children have prominent roles "Danny Gopnik" (an excellent Aaron Wolff) and "Sarah Gopnik" (Jessica McManus). One last prominent role falls to Richard Kind as "Uncle Arthur", unwell and of dubious interests, the role is played brilliantly by Kind.

Larry Gopnik 
(Michael Stuhlbarg) Seen through the ever more frustrated eyes of Larry, Stuhlbarg's performance is a joy and deserves repeated viewings. As his life begins to unravel in bizarre and amusing fashion, his put upon exterior quickly crumbles as events both at home and work seem to conspire against him. The various characters interweave throughout, but the film always retains Larry's viewpoint. Often in the eye of the storm with events seemingly overtaking him, he finds a redemption of sorts amongst the madness as he deals with a messy divorce and surreal social encounters with Sy Ableman and his utterly mad Uncle! Larry's scenes with "Mrs Samsky" (a brilliantly underplayed but mesmerising Amy Landecker) are the film's real joy as Larry finally sees a different world outside of his closeted and closed off existence.

The film appears to follow a three act structure, with purpose narrative introductions of "The First Rabbi", "The Second Rabbi" and "Marshak", however this doesn't strictly fit with the feel of the film. It's more of a running commentary on Larry's slow life descent and ultimate questioning of his religion and beliefs. The life he has depended upon is fast disappearing and whilst in the middle of this is constrained by his religious faith and life values that he holds true and dear to his heart. He is constantly challenging his faith and trying to challenge and adapt his life amidst the madness that surrounds him. On the surface this film appears to be a strictly Jewish religious story and one level this is strictly true. However the challenges to faith and devotion can be morphed to any organised religion. The film's overt awkward moments (without irony or comedy) centre on racism, with numerous mentions of "Goy" in a derogatory fashion with similarly reverse scenes of racism from an obnoxious American neighbour. It can be viewed as a mix of these themes and a challenge to the orthodoxy, but the main theme is clearly our individual insignificance, at events outside of our control and how without a familiar daily structure our lives can be challenging and fragile.

Nominated for two Oscars (Best Film and Best Original Screenplay) in 2010 this darkly comedic Jewish tale of faith and redemption has a number of stand out scenes, particularly Larry's awkward dealings with his Uncle Arthur, his salvation (in a sense) with Mrs Samsky and Larry's son Danny, being heavily stoned at his Bar Mitzvah are very amusing highlights. An obviously personal film for the Directors, this is also a very engaging and funny one at that that has split audiences on it's black comedy roots and no doubt overt take on the Jewish faith and the fragile nature of religious faith in the 21st Century. Carter Burwell provides an eclectic mix for his musical score with Jefferson Airplane dominating with "Comin' Back to Me" and "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" included alongside the opening title track of "Somebody to Love". Jimi Hendrix and "Machine Gun" is also included alongside traditional Yiddish music, and a traditional, localised Hebrew style language. This is a compelling tale as it unravels, strange yet deeply and darkly funny and a favourite for me of the Coen Brothers cannon.

True Grit (2010)

"The wicked flee when none pursueth"

The second remake (or re imaging in today's buzz phraseology) in the Coen Brothers cannon is of True Grit, updating the original film starring John Wayne in 1969 and adapted from the 1968 Charles Portis book of the same name. Nominated for an astonishing ten Oscars in 2011 it was equally astonishing that it failed to win a single nod. The Director Brothers were nominated in three categories and accompanied two of their stellar cast of Jeff Bridges (Best Actor) and Hailee Steinfeld (Best Supporting Actress). This triumph of a film was also nominated in the categories for Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Cinematography. Roger Deakins again provides a wonderful palette for the film and was cruelly overlooked yet again. Similarly so Mary Zophres for Costume Design, another regular collaborator with the Directors on a vast number of their films.

Mattie Ross 
(Hailee Steinfeld) The film's true star and a majestic performance from Steinfeld. Following a brief flashback back story to her Father's death which is accompanied by the film's beautiful and mournful theme from Carter Burwell, the adult Mattie narrates briefly before we are quickly transported to present day and the 14 year old Mattie Ross.   Desperate to track down the killer of her Father, Mattie is immediately front and centre of the camera's lens, a child in an intimidating adult world. By a distance the youngest of the main cast, her performance is perfect as the fast talking, eloquent and educated Mattie. Determined, headstrong and seemingly without fear, she quickly takes her place in a rough outpost of a town, seeking a Marshall to bring the killer of her Father to justice. Her Father's killer is quickly named as "Tom Chaney" (Josh Brolin) and with evidence to this fact and armed with money amusingly secured at the expense of "Stonehill" (Dakin Matthews), Mattie seeks out Rooster Cogburn.

Rooster Cogburn 
(Jeff Bridges) A permanently drunk, reckless and barely intelligible local Marshall is brought to the screen brilliantly by a returning Jeff Bridges. Cantankerous and obtuse yet straight talking Marshall, Bridges is wonderful and close to an all time peak in his career.

LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) A Texas Ranger also seeking the same killer but for different crimes, Matt Damon is brilliant as ever. Another underrated actor of his generation, Damon, with his tall tales, Texas Rangers badge and spurs brings LaBeoeuf to life and plays the character perfectly. Often unintentionally comedic, his character also brings light relief to the film.

These three characters, their interactions and personal journeys are the heart of the film, and affectingly so. We see their unintentional bringing together, quarrels and tall tales, their objections to each other through to their love and admiration. Three top quality present day actors performing three incredible roles. In support of these are two vital cameo roles from two great actors, Barry Pepper as "Lucky Ned" and a returning Josh Brolin as killer "Tom Chaney"Set in the late 1880's, this western is presented in a sepia tinged tone, however this becomes more standard coloured as the film progresses. Immediately the wide shot cinematography is evident and a real joy from Roger Deakins, as is the attention to detail for this period drama. With trademark Coen Brothers cinematography and a beautiful score from Carter Burwell, written and edited again by the Brothers themselves, this is another, and latest Coen Brothers treat. A film that will charm you, make you smile and maybe even make you cry, it lives long in the memory and remains a real joy.



Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

"Where's his scrotum Llewyn? Where's his scrotum?"

Towards the end of the opening Act, long suffering and perpetually angry "Jean" (Carey Mulligan) dismisses our protagonist with a damning shot across his bows "You don't want to go anywhere and that's why all the same shit is going to keep happening to you. Because you want it to". And therein lies a simple metaphor for the film as a whole as well as a continuing insight into the fractious state of the relationship between Jean and "Llewyn Davis" (Oscar Isaac). Whilst Jean is settled and pursuing a singing career in the same underground cafe's as our protagonist, Llewyn is unsettled, frustrated and desperate for his art to receive the recognition he believes it deserves. But playing for the "basket" (the night's takings) at small, cramped cafe's leaves Llewyn constantly without money or the desired recognition, and we follow his painful yet blackly comedic merry go round as he stumbles from one disaster to another. 

Sound familiar Coen Brothers fans? What's also familiar is the brooding, sometimes morose tone but what has (again) been overlooked is that viewed with more sympathetic eyes this could and should be viewed as a melancholic masterpiece. Based on the life of folk singer Dave Van Ronk and his highly recommended memoir "The Mayor of MacDougall Street", the film attempts to capture life in Greenwich Village, New York in 1961. Kitsch songs abound, as does garish clothing and both belong to a bygone age but this only serves to heighten Llewyn's frustrations. The title of Inside Llewyn Davis may refer to us as the audience being within the confines of this frustrated singer and experiencing his inner torment, but similarly it can be seen as slightly ironic as Llewyn is anything but inside but very much outside and struggling to find his rightful place in the burgeoning folk rock scene of the 1960's. The film is set in 1961 and pre Bob Dylan however the film is inexplicably linked to Dylan in so many ways. Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan were on/off friends for many years and both pioneers of the folk scene. One received universal acclaim as one of the greatest singer songwriters of our age, whilst the other was marginally less successful! But history aside the film is soaked through with a Dylanesque tone and sepia colouring, right through to feeling like his famous album cover for "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan". It may just be me (OK, it is just me!) but seeing Llewyn trudging, head down through the Chicago snow, is vaguely reminiscent of this album cover and Dylan himself appears in the finale'. More to the point, the lyrical style of Llewyn's final song "If I had Wings" morphs into an until recently "lost" Dylan song and this is clearly no accident. The soundtrack itself is an absolute joy with the above songs accompanied by many more and many indeed played in full throughout the film, with a Dave Van Ronk original of "Green, Green Rocky Road" playing over the end credits. However the remaining songs are all original compositions created by Coen Brothers stalwart T Bone Burnett in collaboration with many of the film's stars including Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and even the Coen's themselves and Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons. Any film starting with a single microphone and a singer warbling "Hang Me Oh Hang Me" gets my immediate and undivided attention!

The stellar supporting cast is headed by Coen Brothers stalwart John Goodman as a drug addled, self important and teller of tall tales guitar player "Roland Turner" accompanied by his "valet" and driver "Johnny Five" played by Garrett Hedlund. Both compliment each other perfectly, with Goodman on superb form as the motor mouthed and obnoxious Turner, full of utter self importance yet struggling with his own demons and Hedlund provides the shade to his light with an almost wordless performance and cigarette constantly dangling from his mouth. Here in the second act however, as Roland, Johnny and Llewyn travel to Chicago the film stalls and the act itself feels a little forced and out of place, but sandwiching this act are further supporting roles throughout the film from Justin Timberlake as "Jim" a soft hearted and wide eyed fellow folk singer and creator of the film's real laugh out loud (or should that be utterly cringe worthy, or both?!) song "Please Mr Kennedy". Everything about this song needs to be seen, from the enthusiasm and innocence of Jim, to the vocal support provided by "Al Cody" (Adam Driver) through to Llewyn's initial disdain and final begrudging acceptance. It's one of the stand scenes of the film.

Further support is provided by Ethan Phillips (Mitch Gorfein) and Robin Bartlett (Lillian Gorfein) who excel as Llewyn's put upon friends and Max Casella brings much light relief and brilliantly timed barbed comments as Gaslight Cafe owner "Pappi". Jerry Grayson cameo's as Llewyn's absent Manager "Mel" and Stark Sands brilliantly portrays "Troy Nelson" so absurdly straight he steals the screen time with aplomb. There are many more characters throughout the film but the joy of each one is that they are the perfect counterpoint to Llewyn every time, the light to his shade, the innocence to his cynicism, the fresh faced enthusiasm to his world weariness and this is exemplified by the terrific cameo from F Murray Abraham as "Bud Grossman". Oh, and not forgetting a cat called "Ulysses" too!

But unsurprisingly it's the anti hero of the title who excels and Oscar Isaac who brings his world weary and frustrated Llewyn to life so expertly. Criminally overlooked for any serious awards recognition he brings Llewyn to life and immediately into our hearts as he bares his soul with every song performance and every nuanced reaction as his life comically spirals out of his control at every turn. His performance of "Shoals of Herring" for his Father is heartbreakingly poignant as is his impromptu audition for an impassive Bud Grossman. Here Llewyn again provides a brilliantly soulful and heartfelt rendition whilst a dismissive and frankly bored prospective Manager looks on impassively before dismissing him with "I don't see a lot of money here". But the tragi-comedic performance is aptly shown by Llewyn's gradual decline as the film progresses, his boiling frustration building as he's thwarted at every turn. As the sarcasm builds, his nuanced looks of contempt and disdain follow. Llewyn Davis simply does not fit in. He's estranged from his family, friends, contemporaries and indeed life itself. Penniless and living life on the lam and in the clothes he stands in, it's an astonishing performance of a lifetime from Oscar Isaac and worthy of far more recognition than it initially received. 

Like so many of their accomplished works, I was initially unsure of this latest masterpiece from the Coen Brothers. Whilst it was love at first sight, this is nothing new for me as I can't help but fall instantly in love with all of their creations. Further viewings enhance the experience and help capture the subtleties but the looping time story and melancholic air left many audiences cold, unfulfilled and confused. Why does Llewyn suffer so, and so often? There lies the genius of the film and two of cinema's finest storytellers of our age. Considering my myopic love for all things Coen Brothers, this is another odyssey of discovery and of life affirmation against the odds. Clearly I now need a good beard, a guitar and a cat called Ulysses!

Hail, Caesar (2016)

"Would that it were so simple!"

Between finalising Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013 (and the undeserved lukewarm reception it received from film critics) and releasing Hail Caesar three years later, the Coen Brothers were busy in other areas than film directing. The Brothers penned two acclaimed screenplays as well as giving their personal sign off and given "Executive Producer" status on the first two outstanding seasons of the Television adaptation of their 1996 cinema masterpiece Fargo. Whilst not overly involved in the process of the adaptation to television, the Brothers approval signalled that the essence and ethos of Fargo would continue and two very diverse and superb seasons later, this has indeed proved to be the case. On the bigger screen, the two screenplays were equally diverse as well as being universally critically acclaimed, with firstly the Angelina Jolie directed "Unbroken" in 2014 and the Steven Spielberg directed "Bridge of Spies" a year later. Spielberg in particular repeatedly thanked the Brothers for their screenplay "treatment" of his film and you can see why when, in the hands of Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, their often dry witted and charming screenplay comes across in spades in a highly successful and at times excellent film.

The brothers resumed helming duties in 2014/2015 with Hail, Caesar ostensibly a comedy/thriller set in the 1950's which follows the exploits of real life Hollywood Studio Head and "Fixer" Eddie Mannix as he attempts to manage both his stars and his studio from the top down and from every conceivable eventuality. Loosely based on the real life of Mannix, this is twisted in a way only the Coen Brothers can envision on the big screen as they capture a man constantly in a maelstrom of madness, covering the tracks of his star names and the seedier side of their lives, raising an absurd ransom for his vaunted star actor kidnapped from his Hollywood lot, all the while balancing the shooting schedules of various films in production from an esteemed period stage play, to a sailor comedy, a cowboy western and of course, in view of the title of the film, an epic set in Roman times. With Mannix in the centre of this continuing creative chaos, and following a long set Coen Brothers trope of capturing a single person's created chaos as it unfurls and surround them, this is also set against the backdrop of the 1950's Cold War and the ever pervading threat of communism as his star is kidnapped by a Communist cell entitled "The Future".

As you may have noticed(!) from my blog as a whole, I adore the films released by The Coen Brothers like no others, revering them, revelling in them and more often than I care to admit, losing myself and reflecting myself as one of their created characters. A Coen Brothers film often delights far more on repeated viewings as at first glance the jokes, inflections and absurdity is often lost or misread immediately. However, following several re-watches of Hail, Caesar I still remain unconvinced. That is not to say that I don't like the film as a whole as I do. I just crucially don't love it. Perhaps I'm bringing my own fandom to my rationale' of not loving it and expecting more. Certainly the critics loved this Coen's creation and that cannot always be said for their films and maybe I'm being contrary to perceived wisdom, as I am with "Raising Arizona", another lauded film from the brothers that I simply don't appreciate as much as maybe I should. There are, however, some moments of real joy, laugh out loud comedy and notable Coen Brothers tropes that make their 17th film a likeable one.

Take "Eddie Mannix" (Josh Brolin) for example. In typical Coen Brothers fashion he is simply swept up in a tide of swirling chaos that Brolin brings to bear in a deadpan, often befuddled way that pleases the eye and brilliantly returns to yet another Coen Brothers film. Similarly, "Baird Whitlock" (George Clooney) portrays his hopeless kidnapped film star superbly, with his bemusement at the conversations with his Communist kidnappers a real highlight of the film. Following "O Brother Where Art Thou" and "Intolerable Cruelty", Clooney has nailed his "trilogy of idiots" roles that the Coen Brothers created (and named) on his behalf. There are many stand out comedy scenes, with the very best involving "Hobie Doyle" (Alden Ehrenreich) a singing cowboy coerced into a period drama under the direction of "Laurence Laurentz" (a brilliant Ralph Fiennes). Their interactions are priceless as the hapless Doyle struggles with simple dialogue and stage direction from Laurentz before their classic "Would that it were so simple!" Perfect, ridiculous, outlandish Coen Brothers comedy as the pair repeat the same line of dialogue time and time again, with varying degrees of improvement! You also have the ever excellent Tilda Swinton playing two rivalling twin gossip columnists forever harassing Eddie Mannix in the guise of "Thora Thacker" and "Thessaly Thacker", Channing Tatum is cringe worthy yet funny as actor/dancer "Burt Gurney" and Scarlett Johansson plays perma smoking, pouting and embittered actress "DeeAnna Moran" well in her limited screen time. Smaller cameo roles are also filled with Frances McDormand (returning to yet another of her husband's films), Jonah Hill and Alison Pill. My favourite scene of the film, and rivalling the comedic tension of the dialogue stand off above between Hobie Doyle and Laurence Laurentz is the round table discussion held at Eddie Mannix's request between a Professor, an Eastern Orthodox Clergyman, a Protestant and Catholic Clergyman and a Rabbi on the correct use, permitted or otherwise, of Christ in his film Hail, Caesar. The discussion is pure comedic farce, brilliantly written by the Coen Brothers and wince inducing as the conversation descends into heated chaos with so many classic lines with the Rabbi questioning "God has children? What, and a dog? A collie maybe? God doesn't have children. He's a bachelor. And he's VERY angry!" with the Protestant Clergyman retorting with "He USED to be angry". And a struggling Eddie Mannix responding to the Eastern Orthodox Clergyman "You're quite right Patriarch. The Bible, is of course, terrific". Pure Coen Brothers brilliance.

Combine this with superb set designs, decorations and productions, plus the ever dependable Roger Deakins as their go to Director of Photography and you have a lovely, likeable film but one that (at present) I still don't wholeheartedly love.

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